Inclusive Language Principles
Inclusive language uses careful word choice to:
- Acknowledge the personal value of all individuals,
- Include and empower all individuals, and
- Remove potential barriers to communication.
We apply the principles below as a framework for inclusive writing. Any examples that appear with a principle reflect our current understanding of the meanings and connotations of those words at the time of this writing. Language evolves, and we intend to evolve in tandem.
Principle 1: Consider what is relevant to the text
Use personal pronouns, as well as individual, group, or subgroup attributes and characteristics only when relevant to the text.
Principle 2: Write from a person-forward perspective
When an individual is relevant to the text, employ a person-forward perspective.
- Use individual language before subgroup language before group language, unless the subgroup or group is the focal point of the text. For example, generally use “a person” before “an Oklahoman” before “an American”.
- Lead with the person and follow with the modifier. For example, “a person experiencing homelessness” instead of “a homeless person”.
- Use positive and active language. For example, “survivor” instead of “victim”.
- Focus on people not traits unless the trait is the focal point of the text. For example, generally use “people with impaired hearing” instead of “the deaf” or “deaf people”. However, when the focal point of the text is deafness, “impaired hearing” may not be specific enough to mean people who are deaf.
- Avoid stereotyping individuals based on cultural groups or subgroups regardless of whether the cultural association is actual or perceived.
Principle 3: Identify the most specific subgroup for the text
When a subgroup is relevant to the text, identify the smallest subgroup that shares every characteristic, experience, or data point discussed in the text.
- Avoid stereotyping members of cultural groups or subgroups.
- Consider whether the text clearly applies to a group (including all subgroups) or to one or more subgroups.
- When the text applies in the same degree to all subgroups within a group, use the more general group words. For example, when the text applies in the same degree for all people living in Asia, you might use “Asian” or if clearer “residents of Asia”.
- When the text applies in different degrees to one or more subgroups, use the most specific subgroup words applicable. For example, when the text can only be applied in the relevant degree to people of Japanese heritage or Japanese citizenship or Japanese residence, we might use “Japanese” or the most relevant descriptor, like “people of Japanese heritage”, “citizens of Japan”, or “residents of Japan”.
Principle 4: Use least restrictive words
When a group is relevant to the text, use the least restrictive words that are applicable to the group. For example, “humankind” instead of “mankind”.
Principal 5: Avoid appropriation but embrace adoption
When a culturally specific word is relevant to the text, use such words in the manner intended by that culture generally.
One type of cultural appropriation within a text may occur when a writer:
- uses a word, like “tribal”, that is significant to a cultural subgroup
- as a shorthand to achieve a similar significance, like “connectedness within a group”,
- outside the context of the cultural subgroup and
- without meaningful attribution to the cultural subgroup.
Meaningful attribution connects the significant word to the culture of the subgroup in some identifiable way.
An example of no meaningful attribution: “To improve equality and wellbeing across the nation, Americans can adopt hygge practices.”
An example of meaningful attribution: “The word hygge can refer to relationships, activities, clothes, and more. Yet underneath all of the cozy, agreeable, and connected meanings, you find the Danish values of societal equality and wellbeing. In America we don’t have a single word that encompasses those values on a similar scale. Imagine if—even down to the sweaters we wear—we had a word that reminded us daily and through the generations to practice equality and wellbeing as individuals, in social groups, and as a nation.”
A cultural subgroup may adopt words they want outsiders to use when discussing a matter related to the subgroup.
- Unless clearly indicated otherwise, integrate such adopted words as they become known.
- Unless the word is widely recognized, define the term with the first use.
Principle 6: Limit words that negatively impact people
In selecting a word or phrase, consider the likely impact of the word or phrase on both the reader and the subject of the text. Rephrase where a negative impact is obvious, likely, or in doubt.
- Before using a word or phrase, consider its
- Formal, informal, and colloquial (everyday and slang) meanings;
- Historical and current usage; and
- Different meanings among distinct cultural groups and dialects.
- Avoid using words for medical conditions or experiences in non-medical ways.
- Avoid idioms like “blind leading the blind”.
- Avoid medical words used as slang descriptors for behavior, people, and feelings. For example, avoid describing a person or their behavior as “bipolar”.
- Use gender-neutral terms whenever applicable.
- Examples of gender-neutral terms include “sexual and reproductive health”, “humankind”, “Latinx”, “pregnant person”, and “parent”.
- Restructure sentences to replace gendered or less inclusive language with neutral language. For example, change “the customer should receive his invoice in two weeks” to “the customer should receive an invoice in two weeks”.
- Avoid outdated terminology.
- For example, use “children with developmental disabilities” not “children with special needs” or “children with mental retardation” or “mentally retarded children”.
- When discussing laws that use outdated terms, use an updated term if one is clear. To avoid confusion:
- Introduce the updated term;
- Define the updated term as having the same meaning as the outdated legal term;
- Provide an endnote detailing the historical use of the updated term within the relevant body of law or industry; and
- Acknowledge that the customer’s use of outdated or updated terms in their internal and external communications is the customer’s own business decision.
As language evolves, we consult language guidance published by groups with deep experience with diversity in language. See the citations below.
Go to Blog
Rachele Kanigel (editor), The Diversity Style Guide: Helping media professionals write with accuracy and authority, (pub’d unknown, accessed 7/17/23). https://www.diversitystyleguide.com/
Vox Media, Digital Journalism Style Guide of Inclusive Language, “Language, Please” (pub’d unknown, accessed 7/17/23). https://languageplease.org/style-guide/
Brandeis University, Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, “Suggested Language List” (pub’d unknown, no longer updated or revised, accessed 7/17/23). https://sites.google.com/brandeis.edu/parcsuggestedlanguagelist/categories
National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), “Inclusive Language Guide” (pub’d unknown, accessed 7/17/23). https://nasaa-arts.org/nasaa_research/inclusive-language-guide/